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In the Crosshairs: Luma Arles Cultural Center

Published on , by Sophie Bernard

There is nothing quite like the Arles cultural center, an offshoot of the Zurich-based foundation created by philanthropist Maja Hoffmann. Its emblem is the tower designed by Frank Gehry, which acts as both an exhibition venue and a space for artistic and scientific work.

Luma Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Frank Gehry's tower, May 2021.Adrian Deweerdt In the Crosshairs: Luma Arles Cultural Center

Luma Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Frank Gehry's tower, May 2021.
Adrian Deweerdt

Wherever you are, it is difficult not to be aware of it. "It's not the Gehry tower or the Luma tower: it's just the tower", says Maja Hoffmann. Reminding us that Arles is the municipality covering the largest area in France, all the way to the shoreline, she continues: "My profound desire was to see the sea, and affirm the connection between this territory and the Mediterranean." In fact, the tower is the only piece of architecture that emerges from the landscape. From a distance, this intriguing building with its irregularly contoured silhouette looks like some glittering living creature. Up close, it is still disconcerting: on the Victor Hugo Boulevard side, we find a metallic façade made of over 11,000 stainless steel bricks forming twists; on the garden side, a light brown mineral façade. A circular glass window on the ground level, called the "Drum", gives a sense of unity to the whole. Typical of the style of Californian architect Frank Gehry (b. 1929), this building is the result of a long-term collaboration with Maja Hoffmann that started in 2006: the year that saw the release of Sketches of Frank Gehry, a documentary by Sydney Pollack produced by the philanthropist.

At 184 feet (56 m) high and with a surface area of 170,069 square feet (15,800 sq m), this building in the Parc des Ateliers contrasts sharply with the ancient arenas, the Roman theater, the cloisters and the churches all bearing witness to the city's multi-faceted history. However, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim says he was inspired by the Provençal environment—"the architecture, the landscapes, the plant life, the mistral"—and points out that the shape of the Drum evokes a bullring, and the play of light reflects Van Gogh's paintings. Maja Hoffmann is the president of the Vincent Van Gogh Foundation created in Arles by her father, Luc Hoffmann, in 2010. "Here there is a harmonious blend of present, past and future," says the great-granddaughter of the founder of the pharmaceutical company F. Hoffmann-La Roche. "Three Generations: Works from the Collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation" is one of the inaugural exhibitions and a special tribute to her grandfather.

Luma Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Frank Gehry's tower.© Adrian Deweerdt

Luma Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Frank Gehry's tower.
© Adrian Deweerdt

The Mission of an Heiress
With its futuristic looks, Frank Gehry's new creation pulls Arles decidedly into the 21st century. It also continues Maja Hoffmann's close relationship with the city, where she has bought several hotels, prompting divided opinions: acrimonious criticism from some, glowing praise from others. For Arles and Maja have a long history. She arrived there when she was very young, spent part of her childhood there, and has kept coming back. The heiress feels fired by a mission: "It was important to open, even if everything is not completely finished, because it marks the launch of the summer season. It's a way to give Arles what it needs at this period, for those of us who are here all through the year." Access to the tower and exhibitions is free, while the site's opening has spawned some 100 permanent jobs and as many temporary employments during the high season: a significant factor for one of the poorest cities in France.

We return to 2002. Maja Hoffmann accepted when François Hébel, then the new director of the Rencontres de la Photographie, asked her to be part of it. She supported the struggling festival, but there were a few run-ins over the years, particularly over the 27-acre industrial wasteland not far from the city center, where various buildings hosted part of the program. She bought the site, thus depriving the event of venues to hang works. Over time, relations have calmed down: Hoffmann, a member of the festival board, recently signed an agreement to make 13,993 square feet (1,300 sq m) of exhibition space available in La Mécanique Générale, one of the buildings on the site.

Family Continuity
Today, the entire Parc des Ateliers is unrecognizable. Three of the four 19th century industrial buildings have been rehabilitated by German architect Annabelle Selldorf, and a 17.2-acre wooded garden designed by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets has been created: complete with pond, it provides a welcome touch of coolness to the site, which is baking hot in summer. Meanwhile, though it took eight years from the start of construction to the inauguration on June 26, the Zurich-based Luma Foundation has been working since 2004. Over 100 projects, including exhibitions, residencies, events like the Luma Days and lecture and debate cycles have been staged, with themes like the environment, human rights, education and culture.

Laguna Gloria, space designed by Liam Gillick in the Luma Arles tower.© Marc Domage

Laguna Gloria, space designed by Liam Gillick in the Luma Arles tower.
© Marc Domage

Some of these guidelines reflect long-standing family commitments. For example, the interest in nature reflects the actions undertaken by Luc Hoffmann, who in 1954 created in the region the Tour du Valat estate: a biological research center promoting the conservation of wetlands in the Mediterranean. With nearly fifty artists, the inaugural program of what his daughter calls, in turn, an "archipelago", "campus" or "platform" is well-filled and includes several in-house productions based on the theme, like "Danny", commissioned from Philippe Parreno. "What makes us different from François Pinault is that we produce, so it's not only about showing art," says Maja Hoffmann.

More Than an Exhibition Space
In the tower, the visit becomes a visual and physical experience: almost everywhere, the building and the works form a single entity. For example, a circular mirror by Olafur Eliasson, Take your Time, appears in the staircase; the auditorium houses a ceramic mural by Etel Adnan; the upper floor, Isometric Slides, a variation of the famous slide by Carsten Höller, and one of the terraces a real phosphorescent skatepark by Koo Jeong A. Luma Arles is not just an exhibition space. Only 21,527 square feet (2,000 sq. m) are dedicated to the program; the rest is split between cultural projects (including artists' studios), a library, an archive space and living areas such as a café-restaurant integrating work of art, a reception space, a panoramic terrace and offices.

All fields of art are covered. Temporary exhibitions feature well-known names like Pierre Huyghe, whose interactive installation After UUmwelt was designed specifically for the main hall, and emerging artists are brought together under the title "Prélude", presenting films, videos, sculptures and sounds on the theme of nature. Dance is also included, with Benjamin Millepied in residence, as is design with the Atelier Luma: a laboratory whose research into local natural resources can be seen in the tower itself, like salt wall cladding and acoustic panels made from sunflowers for the auditorium.

Is Luma Arles a subtle self-portrait of the elusive Maja Hoffmann? Whatever the case, it reflects her complex links with the city and the close and fertile relationships she has built up over the years with artists, exhibition curators and scientists.

Worth Knowing
Luma Arles, Parc des Ateliers, Arles
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